「夢幻の薄桜」 (Mugen no Usuzakura)
“Light Cherry Blossoms of Dreams”
With Koudou dropping out of the picture earlier than I expected and Kazama intent on settling his score with Hijikata, the possibility of this series ending on a promising note looked rather bleak. In addition, the series has been faithfully adapting the Shinsengumi’s historic events up until now, so Hijikata’s fate looked like it was more or less guaranteed. As someone who was prepared for his eventual death, I wasn’t too surprised to see the tail end of the Battle of Hakodate depict how a bullet pierced Hijikata’s abdomen while he was on horseback heading towards Benten Daiba in support. According to history, this is how the fearless commander of the Shinsengumi met his end, except in this fictional take on it, Chizuru manages to extend his life a little longer with the use of her demon blood. Leading up to that, the brief portrayal of the Naval Battle of Hakodate Bay marked the last encounter between the rebel army and the Imperial forces, and prompted the romance portion of this series that’s been nonexistent up until now. By now, I was left wondering if it was even necessary to throw in a scene with Hijikata confessing his love for Chizuru and telling her that she’s his new-found reason for living, but I did feel that if they were going to do so, now would be it. The reason being, if the relationship aspect of the series had happened sometime over the course of the series, it likely would’ve stolen the focus away from both the Rasetsu and the realistic depiction of events. Between having a romance series with samurai and a samurai one with romance, I much rather prefer the latter one that we got.
As for the ending itself, there’s no denying that it came rather abruptly following Hijikata’s fight with Kazama. There wasn’t even much time to take in how Hijikata managed to kill Kazama in their decidedly final exchange as cherry blossom petals scattered everywhere. As soon as he dropped to his knees and the Rasetsu powers faded from him, the ending sequence started with an epilogue of all of the characters’ final moments. As a result, I was unable to shake the feeling that things ended too quickly, yet I honestly didn’t know what else they possibly could have covered. I guess there’s always the abolishment of the Tokugawa shogunate after Enomoto and Ootori ultimately decide to surrender, though that really isn’t exactly an uplifting turn of events that would have added anything to the story. Instead, it was probably better to end on the sad note like this series has gone for time and time again, with Hijikata dying in Chizuru’s lap from overusing his life energy. It was a sorrow-filled story from the very beginning and I personally wouldn’t have had it any other way given the emotions behind a lot of these scenes. I even got a bit choked up as Chizuru looked to the sky with tears in her eyes, picturing the Shinsengumi in the heavens and still bound by their banner. Included in the group were Saitou and Nagakura, who would actually go on to survive the Boshin War.
From their fight, it’s little consolation for the highlight of this story to be Kazama acknowledging Hijikata’s strength to be that of a true demon and giving him the name “Hakuouki” (Cherry Blossom Demon) — befitting of his actual nickname “Demon Vice-Commander” — but I actually like how it brought some meaning to the title of this series. While it was made light of by Hijikata not caring one bit, it was almost like a joke thrown in at very end, except no one was really expected to laugh at these late stages of the story. I didn’t anyway, as I was caught up in witnessing Hijikata’s final moments. There wasn’t much else to the ending other than how Chizuru would go on living alone. It’s probably the furthest thing from a happy ending, but it’s worth noting that the Shinsengumi were able to protect her until the very end.
Note: I was expecting an extra episode next week, but I’m not so sure anymore when syoboi suggests that this will be the last episode aired. If there is one, I’ll be sure to say a few quick words about it.
Despite ending a couple of episodes earlier than I was expecting, this sequel still managed to give a sense of completeness to the story. While it’s a rather cliché statement, I truly feel that this series was more about the adventure than the destination. Ever since there was clear indication that rise and fall of the Shinsengumi would be portrayed faithfully amidst the fictional elements, there wasn’t much in the way of plot twists for viewers who are familiar with this period of Japanese history. As such, much of my enjoyment came from seeing how things happened rather than what happened, which sparked interest in looking up the history of the Shinsengumi so that I could appreciate this interpretation of it more. As I’ve mentioned before, the whole fiction on top of non-fiction aspect is what appealed to me the most, much like it did in Senkou no Night Raid. Without that degree of personal interest, it’s hard to say how much this series would appeal to viewers expecting samurai and romance. Studio DEEN didn’t break the bank with this standard definition production after all, leaving a fair bit to be desired in terms of animation quality. Because of that, it’s probably safe to assume that this series targets a rather niche crowd, which doesn’t necessary mean a female-only audience like the Otomate games did, but definitely one that likes to think a bit when they watch their anime.
Where production was lacking, this series made up for it with all of its emotional scenes. There haven’t been too many tearjerkers this year, and while this series doesn’t really satisfy that criteria either, it did have moments that got me a bit choked up. That was largely due to the deaths of the Shinsengumi captains along the way and their self-sacrificing acts of bravery that would gave me goosebumps. There weren’t many high points in the depiction of the losing side of the war, so I was captivated by the way the characters continued to hold their heads up high, waving their “Honesty/Integrity” banner in the air, when the odds were completely against them. On the surface, this may have been nothing more than a depressing story, except there was never time for tears with a war going on. None of the characters had any time to feel sorry for themselves and instead continued on wherever their courage would take them, and that was what caught my attention the most over the course of the series. To bring all of that emotion out, the ending themes by mao in both the original season and this sequel became a couple of my favorite songs this year. They’re good songs to being with, though I’m sure it helps having all that Shinsengumi imagery associated with them in my mind.
Ultimately, it was the combination of all those emotion-filled scenes with the fairly serious portrayal of samurai that really won me over with Hakuouki. I really do wish that more shows like this are created, where the plot and character interactions are the driving factors, but I’m well aware that these seinen/josei anime aren’t popular enough to be produced regularly. However, that’s just the way the business works, so I’m just grateful a good series that combines samurai action, character development, historic plot, and demons with a dash of romance showed up back in spring. It won’t appeal to everyone, but I still feel this is one of the most underrated series of the year.